Monday, October 20, 2014

On Mice and Men. Another Weird Research Popularization

This one, from the UK Independent (though extensively available elsewhere, too), with the title:

Man flu is real: Scientists say men have weaker immune systems

And this picture:

  We are told that women have stronger immune systems than men.  We are then told that a study has shown this.  We then find out that it's mouse women who seem to have stronger immune systems than mouse men,  at least against the bacteria streptococcus pneumoniae:

Scientists from Harvard University have discovered that the female sex hormone oestrogen fortifies the immune system, and men are suffering for its absence.
In the study, published in Life Sciences medical journal, a simple dose of oestrogen was capable of curing both male and female mice of bacterial pneumonia.
Bolds are mine.

I know the arguments used to justify rodent studies as possibly applicable to humans.  But there's a pretty large leap from mice to men, and there's always the very real possibility that a similar study done, say, on rats, wouldn't have found the same results.

Or perhaps it would have.  But if it hadn't  it wouldn't have been popularized.

Popularizations which take rodent data and treat it as if it was data on humans are not uncommon when it comes to female rodents and women.  Indeed, those studies have been used to lecture women on ethically correct behavior.  I haven't spotted many popularizations which equate men with male mice and then try to teach men how to behave better*.   I wish we didn't do that crap for either gender.
*The one exception I recall is this.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

What Made Women Scarce in Computer Science Courses in the US?

 This NPR program is worth listening to.  It tries to find what happened around 1984 to cause the anomalous drop in the graph below for women in computer science:

I'm sure other explanations are possible, but the one that program uses is a pretty credible one.  It consists of  looking at a particular time when computers became coded "male," a time when it first mattered that women and men beginning computer study courses at colleges had not had the same exposure to home computers. 

Before that date most people had not had that exposure.  After that date men were more likely to have had it*, and as practice matters, men then looked more competent in the introductory courses (which made more women consider themselves unsuitable for computer science).  The reasons for the exposure difference is discussed in the program, but mostly it had to do with the societal coding of computing as male through advertisements, popular movies and so on. 

Once that happened, that more female students dropped out of the computer science programs, that the programs became more male, those things would reinforce the initial gender coding and the cycle would then perpetuate itself.  To find out how to break that cycle, listen to the program.

All this is interesting when trying to understand the problems women have in the IT industry.  The change is fairly recent, after all.  It's only thirty years since 37% of computer science graduates were women.  Now that percentage is eighteen.  But we regard the field as belonging to male geeks and nerds, as if that was based on eternal biological gender differences.
*The program does talk about access to computers by girls and boys during that era.  It's likely that parents carried out some of the gender coding.  It's not easy to figure out what happened.  But some data suggests that boys' toys are more expensive than girls' toys.  That could have made parents more hesitant to buy a computer for a daughter than a son.  But it's also possible that girls didn't ask for personal computers, for whatever reason.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

On Ebola And Panic

This is a good article on some of the reasons why our hind-brains take over when a new and poorly understood threat to our well-being or survival rears its ugly head (for comparison, check out my theory in the postscript of this post).

Fear of Ebola is almost as difficult to treat as Ebola right now, or so I suspect, based on reading the comments to various articles and the articles themselves.  Because we lack information (and because the CDC and the Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital also seemed to lack information or used information incorrectly), no amount of precautions seems excessive to some.  Indeed, no amount of precautions seems sufficient to some because of the way our brains have been triggered.

I am not arguing that all those fears are groundless.  The problem is that we don't know which fears have grounds and which fears are just hovering around for company.  It is clearly the case that end-stage Ebola patients (and those recently deceased from it) are extremely infectious and that those who care for them (or handle the dead) are at great risk of infection if proper safeguards are not used.

But it's less clear how infectious a patient is earlier in the illness, even after the first symptoms have appeared.   For instance,  the individuals who shared an apartment with Thomas Eric Duncan, the first Ebola patient in Dallas, have not yet developed Ebola, despite sharing living space with him after he became symptomatic*.  The two more recent cases, Nina Pham and Amber Vinson,  are nurses who cared for Duncan when he was in a later stage of the illness.  It's also clear that they were not sufficiently trained or protected.

Thomas Eric Duncan himself caught Ebola from a patient who died on the same day.

The point I'm trying to make is that the degree of risk of infection might depend on the stage of an Ebola patient's disease.  Much of the spread of Ebola in West Africa is linked to funeral customs which encourage touching the corpse of a person who has died quite recently, and that's the time when the disease is most viral.

If this theory is correct, the risk for individuals who shared a plane flight  with Amber Vinson would be considerably lower than the risk she herself faced when caring for Mr. Duncan (not to mention the fact that Ebola is not an airborne disease but requires body fluid contact with either cuts/scratches/wounds or mucous membranes).

*An alternative explanation is proposed here.

Added later:  Here's a list of more likely threats to agonize over if you are so inclined.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Gamergate Gets Nastier

For those of you who are lucky enough not to know anything about Gamergate, these three articles  offer a comprehensive (though much-diluted and sterilized) version of what has been going on:    The Future of Culture Wars*,   Why everybody is fighting and Misogyny.  The most recent female developer getting online threats is Brianna Wu.  This article shows the sort of gentle messages she received for a mocking tweet and the consequences to her and her family.

It is hard to measure numbers on Twitter or social media in general.  This means that the number of truly hateful participants in the Gamergate cannot be easily estimated.  But it's not one or two, though neither is it anywhere close to the total number of people playing games.

Now at least one of the haters is  making threats against an institution, Utah State University where Anita Sarkeesian was scheduled to speak on Wednesday.  Sarkeesian is one of the targets of misogynistic wrath in Gamergate:

 Utah State University plans to move forward with an event featuring a prominent Canadian-American author, blogger and feminist, despite threats of terror, a spokesman said Tuesday evening.
The decision came after several staff members received an anonymous email terror threat on Tuesday morning from someone claiming to be a student proposing “the deadliest school shooting in American history” if it didn't cancel the Wednesday lecture.
The email author wrote that “feminists have ruined my life and I will have my revenge, for my sake and the sake of all the others they've wronged.“

Sarkeesian canceled the event because the Utah police could not guarantee her safety or the safety of her audience.  The university statement:

Anita Sarkeesian has canceled her scheduled speech for tomorrow following a discussion with Utah State University police regarding an email threat that was sent to Utah State University. During the discussion, Sarkeesian asked if weapons will be permitted at the speaking venue. Sarkeesian was informed that, in accordance with the State of Utah law regarding the carrying of firearms, if a person has a valid concealed firearm permit and is carrying a weapon, they are permitted to have it at the venue.
This particular case is an intersection of several different ideas (think of a Venn diagram):  The role of online misogyny (the attacks focus on the person's gender, threaten sexual violence, use the equivalence of "cunt" with an uppity woman and so on), the capture of the most visible part of the Gamergate movement by misogynists from various places on the net (4chan, some meninist sites?), the deeper philosophical questions about who owns games, who decides if presenting women as salivating tidbits and victims is AOK or not (entitlement, fear of losing what one enjoys) and so on, the anti-gun-control laws in Utah (guns in the audience!),  the lack of adequate diagnosis and treatment for mental illness and so on and so on.

On the latter, the author of the anonymous e-mail expresses admiration of Mark L├ępine, the butcher of Montreal and presents a somewhat similar psychological profile of warped beliefs: a belief in the global rule of feminists, a belief in this imaginary group of powerful and evil feminists being the cause of all bad things that ever happened to that person and the belief that killing that group is the appropriate remedy.  Indeed, if we switch "women" for "feminists" we get the pattern of beliefs that Elliot Rodger, the butcher of Santa Barbara, demonstrated.

It's not possible to judge how realistic this most recent threat might be.  But it's worth noting that there are some sites which fall under the rubric of meninism or MRA/MRM (Men's Rights Activists/Men's Rights Movement) where the idea that feminists are demonic monsters who run this planet for the purposes of squashing all men under stiletto shoes is  accepted as a basic truth.

In reality, of course, feminists are not exactly running this world (in some places, such as the so-called Islamic State women are not running anything but perhaps away), feminists are all individual men and women with both good and bad sides, and the vast majority of feminists work to make the world a fairer place.  This reality correction doesn't reach the people it should reach, especially on certain misogynistic online sites and in several comments threads to anything which is about feminism.

Then the real question I have:  Was Sarkeesian's speech going to be on the topic of online harassment of female game developers?  If that is the case, how ironic that the event was canceled because of threats violence.

*This article is especially good on Christina Hoff Sommers, the famous anti-feminist, carrying water for the gamers.  Her argument seems to be that the presentation of women in games as sexual objects or victims is perfectly understandable given the young-male-demographic of the market.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Hilarious Stuff: Ugly-As-Sin Woman Politicians and Ebola Muslim Arachnids

1.  Steve Vaillancourt, a Republican politician from the state of New Hampshire, shares with us his views on how important looks are for politicians:

A Republican state lawmaker wrote in a blog post last week that U.S. Rep. Ann McLane Kuster (D-N.H.) will likely lose her re-election race in November because she is "ugly as sin" and "looks matter in politics."
The New Hampshire blog Miscellany Blue first reported that New Hampshire state Rep. Steve Vaillancourt (R) compared Kuster to a "drag queen" in his lengthy post and said she will probably lose to Republican challenger Marilinda Garcia, who is "truly attractive." He writes that his blog post is politically relevant because he "seem[s] to recall" some new polling that shows "an attractive candidate can have as much as a seven to ten point advantage over a less attractive (or even an unattractive) candidate."

And here is a picture of Mr. Vaillancourt:

 I wish I had Mr. Vaillancourt's self-esteem but then he views the question of looks from a different angle altogether, as something that doesn't apply to him at all.  Though goddesses are naturally gorgeous in every possible way, with shining scales and very sharp fangs.

You might want to link the "ugly as sin" discussion here to my earlier post on women hating their bodies so that you can go "aha!"

2.  This pretend-front-page from a British comedy site hits the sore spot in our click-baiting media:

3.  For your palate cleaning final course in this meal, Eva Cassidy.  This is not hilarious.  It's beautiful.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Do You Hate Your Body? The Glamour Magazine Survey.

According to a new survey by Glamour magazine, women's body hating is more common now than it was thirty years ago.  I haven't tried to find this year's actual survey, to see how the respondents were selected and to judge whether they would look similar in relevant ways to the respondents of that older survey from 1984.

However boring all that might be, it matters.  If the two surveys didn't scoop up women from roughly the same age, ethnic, racial and income categories then the two cannot be directly used as telling us about what has changed in the society.  Because they might have scooped up a different mix of women then and now.

But let's assume that the work was done properly.  You can read the summary of the findings here*.

Tantalizingly, the summary hints that men were included in this year's respondent group but we are not told very much about how men hated or loved their bodies or what that emotion might depend on.

Instead, the summary focuses on increased focus on pictures via social media, the need to get a lot of "likes" on your selfie in Facebook and the fact that you now get daily reminders of how pretty (or carefully selected) the pictures of your friends or acquaintances are.

Guess what the recommendations at the bottom of the survey summary piece were when I read it?  The four included these two: The Look That Men Find Most Attractive and Celebrities Who Have Completely Transformed Their Bodies.  The tangled webs of what determines one's body image, who sells the need to fix that image and so on!

The fashion, cosmetic and dieting industries have a pretty big stake in keeping women unhappy with how they look without expensive help.

My apologies if my coverage of an important topic so far sounds flippant**.  That's because of the surreal framing of a survey carried out by a fashion magazine, utterly dependent on keeping women interested in physical and visual self-improvement.  It's great that Glamour dares to go there, of course, but the solutions the summary offers are all of the individualistic kind.

They are not without value, but they will not change the societal pressures for women to be pretty, for women to be judged as adequately feminine or sexually desirable and so on or the racial and ethnic models of what is beautiful.
*I really would have liked to see the ranking of various items in the "what makes me happy" question, with percentages attached to each.  We are only told that men ranked doing well at work first and that women ranked losing weight first.

Indeed, I would have liked to see all the frequency distributions in that survey, including data on the average weights and job positions of the men and women in it, to see whether we are comparing apples with apples or with pinstriped bananas there.

**Poor body image can result in illness, it drains a person's energy from other uses, it locks people into vicious cycles of dieting and not-dieting, it offers a button for others to press and so on.

The Nobel Peace Prize 2014. For the Sake of Children.

Probably everybody knows who the recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize are this year:

Malala Yousafzai, who is seventeen years old, and Kailash Satyarthi, who is sixty, were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday morning—for, in the committee’s words, “their struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education.”
Satyarthi, who is Indian, is a man who has fought for children for decades; Malala, who is Pakistani, is a child, and a fighter herself.
Both recipients are clearly worth the prize (though perhaps not all prior recipients look quite so worthy now coughObamacough), and I'm happy about this year's decision.  At the same time, this particular Prize always wears an activist or political dress.  This year:
The committee said, in its announcement, that it “regards it as an important point for a Hindu and a Muslim, an Indian and a Pakistani, to join in a common struggle for education and against extremism.” If the committee had bypassed Malala, as it did last year, one suspicion would have been that it was afraid of positioning the Nobel as a rebuke to the Islamic world alone. Perhaps some element of that was at work, but if so, the solution is a valuable one. Here, again, complexity adds strength to the committee’s message.
I'm not sure what the committee's views of the danger of bypassing Malala Yousafzai might have been, but she is not celebrated by all Pakistanis*.  Some regard her as playing the Western tune in the current dance macabre between "religious extremists" and "Western colonizers", to use the labels the opposition tags on each group,  and her focus on the education of girls matters in this context,  because the extreme Islamists are not at all keen on Western education or the education of girls.

I support education for everybody.  It just might be the secret weapon which will make this world better:  Empowering all individuals to read widely, to think widely and to develop the tools to affect their own lives.  It works, and that's why those in power so often wish either to steer education into purely crafts directions (cut here, screw there) for the benefit of corporations or ban certain groups from getting it altogether.
*I should note that the article I link to doesn't give us any real ideas about how common those attitudes are.  They might be quite common are quite rare, based on a few tweets.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella Gives Advice to Women. A Tragicomedy in Three Acts.

Here are the cheat notes for the tragicomedy:

Act I:  An event takes place to celebrate women in computing.  It's named after Grace Hopper who is pretty famous in that field.  Enter Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella with carefully considered advice for women:

He had been asked to give his advice to women who are uncomfortable requesting a raise. His response: "It's not really about asking for the raise, but knowing and having faith that the system will actually give you the right raises as you go along." Not asking for raise, he added, is "good karma" that would help a boss realize that the employee could be trusted and should have more responsibility.

The Greek Chorus:  But what about women not being assertive in salary negotiations as the cause for their lower earnings?  Chicks don't ask.  Chicks don't ask.  Chicks don't ask.  (In a sad and droning tone) .

Act II:  Enter Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella with a carefully considered apology for his lines in Act I:
But his comments caused an uproar online, and Microsoft posted a memo from him on its website. In it, Nadella said he answered the question "completely wrong" and that he thinks "men and women should get equal pay for equal work. And when it comes to career advice on getting a raise when you think it's deserved, Maria's advice was the right advice. If you think you deserve a raise, you should just ask."

The Greek Chorus:  You should just ask.  You should just ask. You should just ask.  Even though asking doesn't necessarily work for women.*

Act III: Ongoing ruminations from various actors, groups, while the Greek Chorus hums in the background.

Here are my ruminations:

1.  I want to get invited as a VIP in a conference for goats which teaches about some weird disease in them.   That's because I know nothing about goat health care and I could be ready to elaborate on that ignorance within five minutes!  Turpentine should work (at least it works in sheep in Terry Pratchett's Diskworld fantasy books).

The above paragraph is a joke, because this play is not all tragedy, right?  I'm not comparing women to goats (because there are also gentleman goats) and I'm not comparing getting paid less or being kept out of top jobs in an industry with some weird goat illness (and this has nothing to do with Ebola, either).

The joke is a vague attempt to capture that astonishing readiness to talk about stuff one hasn't studied.   I take my war helmet off for that!  If it wasn't CEO-splaining it would be very brave, even foolhardy.

2.  Then there are the interesting though very muted defenses:  For example, the argument that Mr. Nadella was talking about everybody, not just she-goats, in that statement.  Everybody should abstain from asking raises because that way your good karma will reward you!  Also, corporations would save lots of money if all workers agreed to meekly take whatever happens to be in their wage packets.

Or the idea that Microsoft already takes care of all that is needed to get deserving people promoted:

"I think as an executive he was trying to say, at Microsoft we have this whole team of people who handle compensation, and if you deserve a raise we will give it to you," Larssen added. "Obviously it came out very wrong, very sexist." 
3.  But I loved this bit:

Larssen thinks it's not only the tone but the timing that played a role: "At a time every big tech company in America is trying to get more women involved, [Nadella's comments] struck a really different chord than the rest of the conversation." 
It's exactly what would have happened if the goats had used me as their health expert.  The big difference is that Mr. Nadella is supposed to know this stuff before he speaks, what with being the CEO of Microsoft,  and I wouldn't have been in that goat scenario.  That he didn't do his homework tells us an enormous amount about the value rankings in the industry.

The Greek Chorus:  Hum. Hum. Hum.  (Out of key).

*A Wall Street Journal blog suggesting that Mr. Nadella's comments were meant for everyone, not just for women, nevertheless notes that:
Asking for more money remains one of the riskiest things a worker can do, particularly for women. In her research on gender, negotiation and leadership, Hannah Riley Bowles, a senior lecturer at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, has found that women are perceived as less likeable or appealing to work with when asking for more money–unless they can frame their request as a strategic opportunity for the company.